Many factors to blame for ethics reform failure

info@islandpacket.comJune 9, 2013 

If rhetorical heat were the measure of a bill's success, we would have a red-hot ethics reform law right now.

Instead, we have nothing to show for the many pledges to strengthen South Carolina's very weak ethics oversight. A lot of fingers are being pointed, but it's an across-the-board failure to get needed changes to the law.

Many would like to blame the Senate for failing Wednesday to get a critical second vote on a House ethics bill. But House members didn't help when they waited until May 1 to pass a very flawed bill.

Gov. Nikki Haley blamed Senate Democrats, and her spokesman pointed to Democratic Sen. Robert Ford's recent resignation over ethics charges as an example of why we need ethics reform, seeming to forget Haley's role in all this and complaints about how charges against her were handled by the House Ethics Committee last year.

That just got Democrats' dander up, particularly when senators could say the Ford investigation showed they could provide adequate oversight of their fellow senators.

And it should be noted that seven conservative Republican senators, including Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, joined 13 Democrats in voting last week against giving the ethics bill the priority on the Senate's schedule it needed to become law this year. The GOP senators changed their votes the next day. After that, a bill to nullify Obamacare in South Carolina got the scheduling priority they wanted.

But nothing came of the manuevering. The Senate adjourned the regular legislative session Thursday before taking the votes needed to keep either of the bills moving this year.

Because this is the first year of a two-year session, lawmakers will pick up where they left off in January. But they shouldn't start with the ethics bill that failed to cross the finish line this session. They should go back to the report from the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform, led by former state attorneys general Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock. Among the commission's recommendations:

  • Create independent oversight of ethics laws by expanding the enforcement powers of the state Ethics Commission and making use of a new Public Integrity Unit.

  • Strengthen conflict of interest laws by requiring disclosure of public and private sources of income rather than just income from government sources.

  • Strengthen campaign finance laws by clarifying the process of filing to run for office; limiting how campaign funds can be used and abolishing political action committees run by legislative leaders.

  • The commission also recommends stiffer penalties for criminal violations of the law.

    Some aspects of the commission's recommendations did end up in the House and Senate versions of reform, including expanded income reporting and closing campaign reporting loopholes. But the key recommendation of truly independent oversight was omitted.

    The House bill created a 16-member joint legislative committee, made up of four House members, four senators and eight members of the public, chosen by lawmakers. Public participation is a step in the right direction, but as one critic noted, lay people tend to follow the lead of lawmakers on committees like this, and that's not what we need.

    Senators wanted to make the Ethics Commission an eight-member panel appointed by the governor and lawmakers that would investigate complaints against lawmakers and determine whether there was probable cause a violation had occurred. Lawmakers would determine any punishment.

    Lawmakers say independent oversight of their activities would require changing the state constitution. They cite a clause that states each chamber is responsible for disciplining its members. They should ask voters on the 2014 ballot whether they want to change the constitution to allow truly independent oversight.

    Still ahead of us is a state Supreme Court decision in a lawsuit alleging Haley violated the current ethics law and the results of separate criminal investigations into the use of campaign funds by House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Ford.

    This issue isn't going anywhere, and lawmakers and the governor should do all they can to restore public confidence in the process.

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